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New Left Review 6, November-December 2000

Andy Merrifield on Mike Davis, Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the US Big City. What are the patterns, and what will be the consequences—social, cultural, political—of the massive influx of immigrants from lands south of the Rio Grande into North American cityscapes?



Mike Davis is a prolific and gifted writer whose oeuvre is getting bigger and more impressive by the day. Catapulted to fame—although not so much to fortune—by his classic Los Angeles jeremiad City of Quartz (1990), he has almost single-handedly reinvented the way we see and tell stories about our cities at the turn of the century; and in the process reinvigorated urban studies, too long split between dry empiricism and abstruse high theory. Davis has re-energized both flanks at once, his racy prose somehow managing to mix Robert Park with Blade Runner, Karl Marx with Chuck D., Nathanael West with Art Pepper, Thomas Pynchon with Maria-Elena Durazo, the Book of Revelation with the Haymarket uprising, Walter Benjamin with Route 405. His combination of imaginative flair and hard-edged take has made the study of cities popular in a way they’ve never been before—though the broad connexions he makes between theories and fields and events, and an indomitably maverick spirit, have on occasion raised hackles in the more conformist stretches of the academy. In Ecology of Fear (1998), Davis’s denunciations of LA’s boosterist politics and real-estate shysters—building luxury homes on the edge of deep abysses, in fire zones, on seismic faults—gave ‘natural’ disasters a distinctive class slant which brought him big trouble with the city establishment. High-tech liberals and press jackals accused him of deliberately distorting the city’s image into a dark dystopia calculated only to drive economic growth out of the Angeleno basin into the hinterland. Instead, it’s driven Davis himself into the hinterland—Hawaii, actually—where he now lives for part of the year. His latest book Magical Urbanism reflects this shift in domicile. It completes his LA trilogy, but is much more than a study of LA. It is a book about people who have left their native lands and are reinvigorating US big cities as their home away from home; who live across borders—and across barriers—and who are staking out new ground, somewhere in between. Within the pages, and between the lines, we glimpse Davis as well. Here his voice sounds like a latter-day Friedrich Engels, documenting The Condition of the Working Class in America, circa 2000—though his jacket-picture has him looking more like an exotic Polynesian wildman. Magical Urbanism is really magical realism and magical Marxism rolled into one, a book of embraces, in the tradition of Eduardo Galeano and García Márquez, fusing barbarism with sensual dreams, romance with politics, grittiest fact with wildest fantasy.

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Andy Merrifield, ‘Chronicle of a City Foretold’, NLR 6: £3

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